It always warms my heart to speak to young girls who are breaking societal barriers and going after their dreams even in fields that are not considered ‘girly’. As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I had the pleasure of speaking to Stephany Wanjiru Wakeanda, a 22 year old alumni of the Equity Leaders Programme and currently a student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Stephany is also a beneficiary of the Equity Wings To Fly programme.
Equity Leaders Programme is a rigorous leadership development program for top-performing Kenyan students with the aim of creating a community of transformative leaders who work together across borders and various sectors to drive sustainable economic growth and social progress in Africa.
The scholars are exposed to a high-performing environment and are taught values of hard work, work ethics, customer service, communication skills, integrity and professionalism. Since inception in 1998, 6,713 scholars have benefitted from internships at Equity Bank prior to joining local or global universities.
Why did you choose to explore studies and a career in science?
I’m not the kind of kid who started building things at a small age. I was just a normal kid but very smart. I knew that since a lot of people told me so. Typically, the bright students are pushed to take up the science careers. So, when my mum told me I should be an electrical engineer, that became my dream. However, I missed the required grade. I scored an A-(79 points).
When I was interning at Equity before joining University, I was excited about a finance career. I thought I’d be the best banker since I’m very good at math. However, one day my colleague just randomly pointed out that since I was quite inquisitive about how the systems and applications work, I should get into the I.T field and find out about it myself. I was at crossroads on whether to pick Finance or I.T. Fast forward, I coupled mathematics and computer science and figured I’ll pick one along the way. Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.
Are there any women who have inspired your career choice and if so who and how?
Yes, Kathleen Siminyu. She is a data scientist & machine learning engineer who is Regional Coordinator for the Artificial Intelligence for Development – Africa Network. She is Co-Founder of the Nairobi Women in Machine Learning & Data Science community, and part of the Deep Learning Indaba Steering Committee.
Just like me, Kathleen’s journey to the computer science world was not the plan but she has become a reputable figure in the data science field. Her story resonates well with mine. Just like me, she only started programming in her third year of university, so it was fairly “late”. Her persistence reminds me that it’s never too late to pick something up. Some people start in primary or high school, but she started late and still turned out okay so I’m on the right track.
What are the challenges you have faced as a woman in science?
Underestimation. Which can be a good/bad thing. Sometimes, when people misjudge your capabilities, you can mesmerize them by coming up with something unexpectedly awesome. On the flip side, you constantly have to prove yourself that you’re up to the task. This can be so exhausting to always have to fight for a place on the table.
Did ELP prepare you for the journey ahead? If so how?
ELP taught me one fundamental thing. If you don’t get out of the box you’ve been raised in, you won’t understand how much bigger the world is. Sometimes, we tend to get trapped in our little worlds. Coming from a tough family background, I’d never envisioned myself having to come this far. Working at the bank helped me discover my passion. Furthermore, applying for universities abroad opened me to a new world of possibilities.
Are there many girls from ELP pursuing careers/education in science? how have you inspired each other?
It can be quite hard to keep in touch with girls pursuing these careers. For people doing tech courses, we try to invite most of them for the TechHub meetings, but the ladies’ attendance compared to the men is quite alarming. Women are sometimes not as assertive and need an extra push so that they believe they can do it – I see that in this group of girls.
In the beginning, the attendance was largely male. Later, some few girls’ would join but not consistently. After talking to people, I realized that sometimes the content felt too difficult for them – and that stopped them. For guys, it was difficult too, but their rationale was, “This community adds value even though it’s hard, so I’ll keep coming back.”
We were to launch a WoTech group to support ladies in tech and assign mentors in
the different tracks but due to the pandemic, we put that on hold.
Do you have a leadership role in any science affiliated associations?
I’m a member of different tech groups e.g. TechHub, Nairobi Women in Machine learning and Data science as well as a mentor in She Code Africa for the Data Science Track. Once in a while, I get random mentorship requests from ladies taking up Data Science, which I take up, gladly.
Where do you see yourself in future?
I would love to be an industry expert that others can come to for ideas, help and strategy. I’ve had amazing mentors, so I’d like to be able to provide similar guidance, potentially taking on a leadership role. Finally, I’d like to use my skills and knowledge in the AI field to build a product that will empower my society.
What would you tell your younger self or those behind you about being a woman in science?
If you’re waiting until you feel talented enough to make it, you’ll never make it. There were times when I didn’t take up opportunities because I thought I need to first learn something more. I’d tell my younger self to just do it. Just volunteer for the role, apply for that job, start the project!
It is far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
Any partying shot?
If it is to be, it is up to me. (In this case, it is up to YOU!).